When frontiers were new | Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | May 24, 2017

There’s been an artifact on my desk all week, a remnant of a bygone era. It apparently was an era when people had much better eyes.

Or that’s all I can deduce, anyway. It’s a tiny photo album, which contains even tinier photos. I’m guessing it was designed to fit in a pocket or a purse, an analog version of my phone.

It belonged to my grandmother, and on a recent visit my mom asked if I wanted it. I tossed it in my suitcase and subsequently on my desk, where it sits and annoys me with its smallness.

The photos are unremarkable. Most of them are shots of a large crowd, rows and rows of the backs of heads. In the distance is a stage of some sort, with several people milling about.

I know what I’m looking for, and if I stare at these dinky pictures long enough I’ll find it. Everything is blurry, with washed-out color, but I can catch a few details and eventually I locate him.

He’s standing at a podium, obviously speaking to the crowd. A frozen gesture will leap out, or a pose, and then I spot it. His elbows are bent in one picture, and it’s obvious he’s sliding a hand in or out of his coat pocket, and that’s when I know.

It was a signature habit, sort of a nervous tic, and I’d recognize it anywhere. It’s always made me think of someone who didn’t know what to do with his hands, but knew that he didn’t want to jam them in a pants pocket and mess up his elegant line, so he puts them in his coat. The pockets aren’t deep enough to fully extend, so his elbows are akimbo. I’ve seen hundreds of pictures like this. I know it’s him.

But, again, I knew already. Vaguely familiar handwriting in this album tells me that these photos were taken in Long Beach, California, at an aircraft plant on Nov. 1, 1960. Back to the future, I looked up the date. It was a Tuesday, one week before Election Day, and Sen. John F. Kennedy didn’t know what to do with his hands.

Kennedy would have been 100 years old on May 29. That’s an ironic way to put it; we can try to imagine him that way – white-haired, waving from a boat deck, leaning on a cane – but it’s ultimately futile, a fantasy overshadowed by fact. He remains, instead, a figure in grainy footage, preserved by a trick of historical light. John F. Kennedy will always be young.

We don’t think of him as a member of the Greatest Generation, although he certainly was. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, though, he seems not frozen but unstuck in time, floating through contemporary American history, ready to be plucked by politicians needing the right attitude, or gesture or rhetoric.

Being Kennedyesque is the ultimate attribute, the Holy Grail of the modern political personality. Get the perfect hair, practice the smile, jab the finger some, slip in a New England vowel if you can get away with it, look young, act young, talk about energy and light and toss in a touch of the poet from time to time.

He was the youngest president we’ve ever elected, with the shortest lifespan, and it’s his youth that mostly lingers. I was in kindergarten when he was assassinated, with only vague memories of that event and none of his presidency, but I grew up in the hagiography era when it came to JFK.

His energy and wit were in sharp contrast to the ones who followed, and as a kid I was fascinated. He seemed an anomaly among the old men, a shining light that was struck down.

I grew out of all of this, not from cynicism but just the truth. Kennedy was a remarkably flawed man, a creature of his time and heritage, and his administration was often just lurching from crisis to crisis.

He hid his health issues, which were ominous and debilitating, as well as his careless shattering of marriage vows. And the legacy of Vietnam is primarily his.

Yet the facts seem irrelevant. His contemporaries are mostly gone now, and in 20 years few will remain who remember his time. Those my age will, at best, recall that there were no Saturday morning cartoons on Nov. 23, 1963, and that the adults were upset. Time is a bipartisan eraser, the details left to historians. The rest of us only get the glitter, the shiny stuff that sticks.

I know the details, and I’m too old to be swept away by rhetoric that, in fact, now feels lofty and even odd. I’ve seen too many politicians to be swayed by pretty words.

But I have these photos, and I look at them. I know what he’s doing, trying to eke out an electoral college advantage from California, which he’d end up losing to Richard Nixon in the closest presidential election in anyone’s memory.

It’s just a coincidence that I came to possess these pictures as his centennial approaches. I don’t mourn his short life, having no memory of it, but I grieve a little for my country.

I doubt that a complete JFK presidency would have altered history in a significant way, but of course I can’t possibly know that.

I just know that history was altered anyway, as it always is, and I’ve got the pictures to prove it.

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